The think tank Localis have produced a paper on the theme Revitalising Local Democracy: Ideas for improving turnout and participation. I contributed a piece (not with a big idea but a shopping list of small ideas), as did Ken Richie, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society. But I was most struck by the suggestion from the third contributor Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy, that Councils should have referenda more often.
Certainly all these sham consultation exercises are a terrible waste of money and fool nobody. The Mayor of London Boris Johnson had a real consultation – effectively a referendum – on getting rid of the western extension of the Congestion Charge which he has pledged to carry out.
Facey says that in the past a few Councils, such as Croydon, have held a referendum on the level of Council Tax. But why should the Council decide the subject for the referendum? Facey suggests that each Council should have a Petition Committee with a rule that if, say, 2% of residents sign a petition then a referendum should be held. There would need to some safeguards. What if it was calling for something the Council did not have the legal power to deliver? What if we ended up with a referendum every two minutes as portrayed in that Peter Cook film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer?
I like the Tory proposal to "give residents the power to veto high council taxes via local referendum" in the manner of California's Proposition 13. But what constitutes "high"? Most of us feel the Council Tax is pretty high. What about the power to initiate a referendum for a 10% cut in Council Tax?
This approach would probably increase participation but reduce turnout. If local councillors no longer have the power to set the Council Tax why bother voting for them?